November 6, 2021 Essay: Will You Also Leave?

Nov 4, 2021

I am sure we have all known Catholics who have left the church for one reason or another. Maybe even close family members. Some have gone loudly and publicly. Others have just drifted away. For some, the church has changed too much in the past forty years or so. For others, the church has not changed enough. Some worship Jesus but cannot stand his church. It does not seem relevant to their lives. Some who left the church expected a church of virtuous people and got a church of sinners instead.

Many walked away as the clergy sexual abuse scandals and the pattern of cover-ups began to be exposed some twenty years ago. These were shocking reports for every Catholic. And it has badly damaged the church. Too many underage people were scarred for life. Too many bishops were guilty of handling the scandals shamefully. For whatever reason people leave the church, it would make fascinating reading to poll a diverse group of lapsed Catholics for their answer to the question: Why did you leave?

But the other side of the question is even more intriguing! Why do you stay? Surely it is not because the church is without its flaws! How could it be? It is made up of sinful people – from the pope on down. And surely, we don’t stay in the church because it has all the answers. Or because I find a faith community that agrees with me on everything.

During the pontificate of Pope Paul VI, Frank Sheed, the founder of Sheed and Ward publishers, and one of the great Catholic apologists of the time, had this to say: “We are not baptized into the hierarchy; do not receive the cardinals sacramentally; will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the pope. In the early 16th century, St. John Fisher could say in a public sermon, ‘If the pope will not reform the curia, God will’. Christ is the point! I admire the present pope, but even if I criticized him as harshly as some do, even if I sometimes find the church as I have to live with it, a pain in the neck, I should still say that nothing a pope, or a bishop, or a priest could do, or say, would make me wish to leave the church – although I might well wish that they would leave. Under the worst administration, we could still learn Christ’s truth, receive his life in the sacraments, and be in union with him to the limit of our willingness.”

What this personal confession reveals is that what kept Sheed (and so many like him) in the church was his relationship with the person of Jesus. It wasn’t his relationship with the pope, or the local bishop, or his parish church and community. It was his connection with the person of Jesus. And somehow, we realize that for two thousand years, for all its ups and downs, the church has been the channel that brings the living Jesus into our lives in a unique and incomparable way at every Mass. Only at Mass is where we are nourished by the Word of God in sacred scripture and by the Bread of Life in the Eucharist. With gifts like these, what could send us away? And where on earth would be going for that nourishment?

— Rev. William J. Bergen, S.J., Senior Priest